Brits have been told to urgently get the Covid jab as ministers warned the majority of those in hospital with the Indian variant had failed to get the vaccine.
The number of cases of the highly contagious new strain has quadrupled in the last 10 days, up to 2,323, across all age groups and right across the country.
Almost 500 of these are in Bolton and Blackburn-with-Darwen in Lancashire, where the Indian variant is now the dominant strain.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock urged those hesitant to look at Bolton – where the majority of people in hospital with the India variant were eligible to get the jab but hadn’t.
Of the 18 hospitalised patients, some who are intensive care, five had had a single dose of the jab, one had had a second dose – and 12 had not been vaccinated at all.
Another eight people are in hospital with the new strain in Blackburn.
Mr Hancock told MPs: “This shows the new variant is not tending to penetrate into older, vaccinated groups and it underlines again the importance of getting the jab especially – but not only – amongst the vulnerable age groups.”He added: “Vaccines save lives. They protect you, they protect your loved ones and they will help us all get out of this pandemic.”
The vaccine roll-out has been sped up and mass-testing has been introduced in ‘hotspots’ across the country, also including Glasgow and London, to try to curb the spread.
But more than 86 local authorities in England are now reporting five or more confirmed cases, with Bedford the next biggest area of concern.
The Government has been accused of dragging its feet on putting India on the travel ‘red list’ because Boris Johnson wanted to travel there to strike a trade deal.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Our borders have been as secure as a sieve. The delay in adding India to the red list surely now stands as a catastrophic misstep.”
People aged 36 will be offered the vaccine from tomorrow and this will be expanded down the age groups later in the week.
Top Government scientists have warned against socialising indoors and hugging friends which could put Britain’s final steps out of lockdown in jeopardy.
They have urged people to be cautious as the nation unlocks amid fears the highly contagious Indian strain could trigger “another big wave” of Covid this autumn.
Millions of people across England are now able to mix inside pubs and restaurants, stay with friends and travel abroad on holidays for the first time since Christmas.
In the clearest sign yet the final step out of England’s roadmap on June 21 could be delayed, Boris Johnson dropped his deadline for major updates on social distancing, domestic vaccine passports and weddings.
Just days after the Prime Minister promised them, No 10 confirmed it could no longer guarantee that the reviews would report back by the end of the month.
Tory insiders admit that the final step out of lockdown – dubbed ‘freedom day’ – could be delayed if the Indian variant spreads out of control.
This would mean advice to work from home, social distancing rules and limits on indoor gatherings to just six people or two households would all stay in place.
It also makes the imminent expansion of holiday destinations look less likely – with just 12 countries already on the travel ‘green list’ and others unlikely to join them if infection rates soar.
But Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng insisted it was still “very likely” all restrictions will be able to end as planned in the roadmap.
He added: “People should have common sense, they should use judgement.
“If we act in a reasonable way, there is no reason to suppose that we can’t reopen the economy entirely on June 21.”
New data yesterday showed the B.1.617.2 strain – originally found in India – had more than doubled in the UK in a week to over 2,300 cases.
Prof Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said it was “perfectly likely” the PM will have to tear up plans for ending all restrictions from June 21.
“I really hope that the current concerns around this variant evaporate and that everything goes to plan,” he said.
“But I think we just have to accept the possibility that we’re in for another big wave and we will have to change what we’re doing.”
He added that it was “actually quite risky” to mix people together at this point in time – and he had told his own family to be “very careful” about making contact.
SAGE member Sir Jeremy Farrar said it was not unreasonable to press ahead with yesterday’s changes, but warned: “This is the most difficult policy decision frankly in the last 15 months or so. It is very very finely balanced.”
He added that he would not be meeting family and friends indoors “for the moment”.
SAGE member Prof Graham Medley, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he thought there was a less than 50% chance that the June 21 road map will be delayed. But he added: “It is uncertain”.
Scientists have said that the vaccine remains effective against the Indian strain – but those who have not yet had the jab remain vulnerable.
They have also confirmed that it is more infectious than the Kent strain which was dominant throughout the second wave.
But No 10 has rejected calls by some local health chiefs to offer jabs to all over-18s as they say it could take the vaccine away from needier recipients elsewhere.
Currently only people in their late thirties, apart from frontline workers and those with underlying health conditions, have been offered the jab.
In Bolton, local health chiefs admitted that other age-groups had come forward for the jab over the weekend.
Dr Helen Wall, who is running the programme, said: “We are looking for ways to vaccinate people rather than turn them away but we are sticking with the flexibility of the JCVI criteria.”
People as young as 17 were said to have been able to get the jab, with young people living in multigenerational households among those fast-tracked.
There were around 10,000 people in the area in the highest priority groups who were yet to be vaccinated last week, but 6,200 jabs were administered over the weekend.
Sadiq Khan joined calls for a surge in Covid vaccinations to people of all ages in Indian variant hotspots.
The London Mayor said the Government should “use the vaccine sensibly” and tackle transmission in pockets with high ratios of the variant.
He has asked the Health Secretary to give “flexibility” to allow young people to get the vaccine early.
But Downing Street urged health officials in England to stick to the priority list advised by experts – and not to extend vaccines to younger people.
No 10 said: “We want every part of the country to abide by the advice set out by the JCVI, it’s this unified approach that has allowed us to proceed so quickly with our vaccine rollout.”
Glasgow residents aged 18-39 could be offered a first dose of a vaccine as soon as next week as Scottish health bosses try to stop the Indian variant from spreading across the city.
Government scientific adviser Prof Peter Openshaw said it was important to vaccinate people “as fast as possible” including those under 18 in hotspot areas.
Ex-PM Tony Blair added: “There are some areas that will be bigger priorities than others.
“It’s probably sensible when you go into those areas not simply to vaccinate the risk population which is usually the more elderly population, but also to make sure that you’re reaching the younger people as well who can spread it.”
NHS bosses have warned that low Covid vaccine uptake in Indian variant hotspot areas is the “biggest risk” to a return to normal life.
Second doses of jabs for over-50s have are being brought forward so all will have received both at least two weeks before June 21.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “The biggest risk comes from, if there are large numbers of older people who are unvaccinated.”
He added: “The real issue is that we know that there are communities of people who haven’t been vaccinated and who are eligible – and we know there’s a link for example to deprivation, we know there’s a link to ethnicity.”